Lester's April struggles continue in loss
Red Sox look to recover from worst start since 1996
BOSTON -- The slow start has become uncomfortably familiar for Jon Lester. For the Red Sox as a whole, it is something new and unwelcome.
In Sunday's 7-1 loss to the Rays, the Sox fell to 4-8, marking the club's worst start after 12 games since Kevin Kennedy's team stumbled to a 2-10 opening in 1996. Boston is five games behind the Yankees and Rays in the American League East.
"We're not doing a lot of things correct right now," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "Every day, it seems to be something different. But again, we've dug ourselves in, we'll dig ourselves out."
Lester was again hit hard, giving up seven hits and seven earned runs over six innings. He is 0-2 with an 8.44 ERA in his first three starts. For his career, Lester is 2-6 with a 5.46 ERA in the season's first month.
"I just have to be better," Lester said. "That's all I know. I have to be better, and it's unacceptable. I'm letting the rotation down -- I'm letting the bullpen down. After last night, I have to do a better job and go deeper in that ballgame. I have to give them a blow, and I didn't do that.
"Most importantly, I'm letting the team down with how I'm throwing the ball right now. I need to pick it up and kick myself in the [butt]. I don't know what else I need to do, but I'm going to figure it out and everything's going to ride on from there."
Even if Lester had his best stuff, it might not have mattered. Matt Garza mowed through the Red Sox, limiting them to four hits over eight innings. Including the postseason, Garza is 8-2 with a 2.71 ERA lifetime against Boston.
"They're like the Yankees -- they're going to try and work that pitch count up, and try and get the starter out early," Garza said. "So I knew I had to go after them and go after them early. And that's what we had to do, was set a tone. So I did get a lot of first-pitch swinging outs. And that was a huge plus that got me deeper into the game."
At least in the first, it looked like Lester was on his way to a rebound performance. He came out blazing, striking out the side on 16 pitches.
"Well, we saw the same thing [in his first start] against the Yankees," Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell said. "It's staying with a consistent effort level. At times when he has the opposition in those situations, there's the tendency to try to do too much with a given pitch and either just miss or misfire, thus running the count deeper in full-count situations."
Whatever momentum Lester generated in that impressive first fizzled quickly. Evan Longoria led off the second with a double over Mike Cameron's head in center. Carlos Pena followed by ripping a two-run homer to center, putting the Red Sox in a quick 2-0 hole.
"Fastball away. He hit it to center field," Lester said. "I don't know. I thought it was a good pitch, but I haven't gone back and seen it."
It was the fifth time Pena has gone deep in 29 career at-bats against Lester.
"He's a fastball hitter, and I'm a fastball pitcher," Lester said. "He's either going to get me, or I'm going to get him. I'm not going to shy away from my game plan because the guy can hit fastballs. You know, first pitch after a double and he hits it out, what can you do?"
Lester could shake off getting taken over the wall by Pena, but what was far more difficult for him to stomach was the way he got himself in trouble in the third. Lester started that frame by walking Gabe Kapler and Jason Bartlett. Carl Crawford moved the runners up with a bunt, and that strategy worked perfectly, as Ben Zobrist ripped a two-run single to right, making it 4-0.
The next annoyance for Lester came in the sixth, when he opened the inning by walking Pena and then got ahead of B.J. Upton, 1-2, before serving up a two-run blast to the center fielder on a 3-2 pitch.
"I think I was 1-2 to B.J., and I end up throwing basically some [lousy] pitches to him," Lester said. "And he gets back into the count where he feels comfortable, and I become predictable, and he hits it out. So I just have to, I don't know what I have to do, I just have to be better."
The Red Sox didn't get their first baserunner until two outs in the fifth, and even that was short-lived. Adrian Beltre lined one off the Green Monster but was thrown out trying to stretch it into a double. Jason Varitek produced Boston's second hit of the day in the sixth, and he was also erased, courtesy of a double play by Cameron. It happened again in the seventh, as Marco Scutaro singled and Dustin Pedroia hit into a double play.
"His stuff was tremendous," Francona said of Garza. "He threw his fastball with some velocity, and his breaking ball and changeup. We didn't have a lot of runners on base. Then when he did, he really kept the ball down in the zone and got us to roll over."
Is Lester pressing? For that matter, are the Red Sox?
"I can only speak for myself when I say yes and no," Lester said. "There's times, where, yeah, I'm trying to grind it out, and I'm trying to do better. Nobody wants to go out there and fail. It's tough when you go out there and you're not getting results. You still have to step up on that mound, and you still have to be confident. Sometimes that's very hard to do. You have to forget about the last pitch and keep going. As far as everybody else, you'd have to ask them. I have no idea."
"It's frustrating," Cameron said. "We just haven't been able to put anything together consistently."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.